Climbing the Social Ladder

Part 7 in the Series:

The Spirit of Jezebel

By Don Enevoldsen

Asklepios

As I write this series, a multitude of memories have flooded my mind from the fifteen years I spent at Living Word Bible Church. So many experiences, which did not seem terribly important at the time, now present themselves as glaring examples of spiritual abuse that I could not even begin to recount all of them. In every case, the goal of the senior pastor was to secure his position of power and to keep people in their place, all under the guise of “building the kingdom.”

I was never really considered a true insider, but I had skills unique enough to give me more access than most people. (Mostly I could write and they wanted books.) I also had the kind of demeanor that appeared submissive and quiet. Tom, the founding pastor, often gave me fatherly advice, and on many other occasions, I was present to hear his counsel for others. What I remember most at this point was how often the advice didn’t sit quite right, but I suppressed my feeling of aversion for the sake of getting those occasional pats on the back and for the promise of moving up the hierarchical ladder within the organization. It’s amazing how much you can overlook when you don’t want to see it.

“I never let anyone in the church gain a following,” was one such comment that I overheard, several times, in fact. The reason was that any pastor, elder or teacher who became too popular could potentially “divide the church.” That sounded almost acceptable on the surface, but in actual practice, it meant that anyone who got too successful might challenge the ethical improprieties of the leaders and take tithers away.

Thus any criticism was squelched. More than once I saw how people who started to ask questions were dealt with. One man, for example, was sitting in the Sunday morning service when the pastor’s assistant tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to come to the foyer. Once away from the main congregation, he was told Pastor Tom didn’t want him there anymore and he needed to leave and not come back. When he asked why, the assistant merely shrugged his shoulders. I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, but it was a fairly common practice.

And it had the desired effect. Generally people did not question anything, for fear they would lose the recognition given to them. As long as we could continue to teach the Sunday School class we had been given, we turned away from ill treatment of others.

I did not recognize at the time that this was the Spirit of Jezebel at work. We tolerated it for the sake of status, and we thus participated in, and became complicit in the abuse of others—for personal gain. We justified it because we were doing God’s work and if we didn’t put up with the things we saw, if we questioned them, then we would be stopped from doing God’s work. Or at least that was how we saw it.

Now, as I look at the message to Thyatira, these experiences—which I will continue to share—have a context that makes sense. There is a great deal of clarity, which I hope will come to you as well as I share my story and what I’ve seen in Scripture.

I hope you have not grown weary of this historical background to the church of Thyatira, but it is essential to fully grasp the essence of the Spirit of Jezebel. Thus far we have looked at the history of Jezebel herself, the practice of buying and using food that had been sacrificed to idols, and the banqueting culture of the ancient Roman Empire, but there are still a couple more aspects to examine before we return to modern manifestations of this abusive and tyrannical spirit.

One of the primary reasons banquets were such a pervasive part of Roman society was the proliferation of voluntary associations. Numerous types of these groups existed, including religious organizations, trade guilds, and funerary associations. Most commentaries on Revelation mention large numbers of trade guilds in Thyatira, often giving the impression these were something unusual or unique to that city. However, commentaries virtually never elaborate on why they mattered in the message to Thyatira. At best they point out that Lydia, the seller of purple mentioned in Acts 16:14, was from Thyatira, though at the time, she was living in Philippi, and no mention is made in Acts of any associations or guilds to which she belonged—or any reason why it would be important if she did.

In fact, Thyatira had no corner on the practice. Such associations are attested by inscriptions and literature from virtually every place in the ancient Mediterranean world. And in spite of the wide diversity in membership, voluntary associations all had a similar purpose and operated in essentially the same way. It was the similarity in the motivation of leadership in Thyatira with the practices of those associations that made this significant in Revelation. (Note that there is considerable reason to believe that the church, as it developed in Asia, Greece and Rome drew heavily on the structure and organization of the associations, becoming basically a specific type of voluntary association itself. But that’s a topic for another time.)

Perhaps the most consistent similarity between all voluntary associations was the regular banquet for members, usually held monthly. Associations were formed ostensibly for a variety of reasons, but regardless of the stated reason, the social activity was given the highest priority. Trade guilds usually had little to do with the kinds of labor issues associated with modern unions. The primary purpose of trade guilds was social. Though voluntary associations could, and occasionally did, exert political pressure, business was kept separate from the more important aspects of drinking and feasting. “It was voted further,” said the record of one guild’s meeting, “that whoever wants to raise any complaint or issue, he shall raise that issue at a convention, so that we may banquet quiet and in good cheer on solemn days.” (CIL XIV 2112, 2.23)

Honor and status were at the core of voluntary association functions and purpose. In most cases, membership was not restricted on the basis of income or class. While a trade guild might be made up of only those people involved in that particular trade, economic status was not an issue. Even slaves were often allowed to join, and the poorest people in the society could use their membership in a guild to elevate their social status in a way that they would never be able to accomplish on their own. They could rub shoulders with the wealthy, as well as give and receive honor within the group, gradually climbing the social ladder in the process, something akin to the idea of modern networking.

At the other end of the spectrum were the patrons. Every association sought wealthy or politically connected patrons to support their efforts and elevate the visibility, honor and status of the group. Patrons were expected to contribute to the expense of the monthly banquets. In addition, they frequently passed out gifts to the other members, and often agreed to build or underwrite the expense of building banquet halls and meeting places, or purchase common burial grounds for the members. In return, patrons increased their social status in the city by the publicity of their generosity and the support of the members for their ambitions.

Typical of association patrons was Marcus Minatius. He was a patron of the Berytian Poseidoniastai, Merchants, Shippers and Warehousemen on the island of Delos. A surviving decree by the association describes numerous honors given to him for his support, (ID 1520) noting in the beginning that he sought honor as the purpose of his patronage. Marcus had financed a public banquet, paid for sacrifices on behalf of the members, as well as sizeable monetary donations, and he constructed a sacred enclosure.

In return, Marcus was allowed to erect a statue of himself in the association’s courtyard and to place a portrait of himself anywhere except in the rooms with the religious shrines to the gods of the association (something to remember when you look at the plaques and memorials in the church foyer commemorating the biggest givers to the building fund).

Marcus was given the couch of honor at banquets (something to remember when you see the reserved seats at the front of the sanctuary for the biggest tithers in the church or VIP parking for the same group). In addition, a day was celebrated each year in his honor and he was given a gold wreath and a crown (something to remember when you see ostentatious pins or badges worn in pride by pastors or elders). (I understand that such badges are useful in larger churches to help newcomers identify who they can talk to for various kinds of help, but I also remember the complaints I used to have to deal with when I was on a large church staff from pastors and elders who thought their name tag was not big enough or bright enough to stand out, or those who thought they were being slighted because they hadn’t gotten the badge they thought they deserved as fast as they thought they deserved it.)

This public display of largesse brought patrons the power that could be derived from reputation, but it also frequently translated into political support. Associations endorsed and campaigned for their patrons in elections. (Numerous inscriptions attest to this support. CIL IV.864, for example: “The cloth dyers ask you to elect Postumius Proculus as aedile.” See also: CIL X.846; CIL IV 710, 7164, 7473; ILS 6367)

The level to which this support could be leveraged was remarked by Philo. He described an Alexandrian named Isidorus as “a man of the populace, a low demagogue, one who had continually studied to throw everything into disorder and confusion, an enemy to all peace and stability, very clever at exciting seditions and tumults.” (Philo, Flaccus 135) The way Isidorus stirred things up was through his patronage of several local associations.

“There are a vast number of parties in the city whose association is founded in no one good principle, but who are united by wine, and drunkenness, and revelry, and the offspring of these indulgencies, insolence: and their meetings are called synods and couches by the natives. In all these parties or the greater number of them Isidorus is said to have borne the bell, the leader of the feast, the chief of the supper, the disturber of the city. Then, whenever it was determined to do some mischief, at one signal they all went forth in a body, and did and said whatever they were told.” (Philo, Flaccus 136-137)

The actions of Isidorus were not unusual. Roman government everywhere looked with suspicion on the meetings of voluntary associations, wary of any subversive political overtones. Numerous laws were passed to strictly regulate who could and could not meet and what they could discuss during their meetings. (Lex Coloniae Genetivae, ILS 6087) The Emperor Trajan, for example, wrote to Pliny the Younger about the formation of a guild of firemen:

“But I bear in mind that that province of yours, and particularly those cities, are subject to trouble from associations of this description. Whatever name, for whatever reason, we give to these reunions they will shortly become…secret societies.” (Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.34)

He preferred to tell people to be prepared to fight fires on their own rather than have a guild for that purpose. In spite of these concerns, however, voluntary associations were so popular that the best the government could do was try to regulate them. They could not be entirely eliminated.

All of these aspects of the pursuit of honor, status and power were implied by the use in Revelation of the images of food sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality and a bed of suffering. People who were motivated by a desire for status and power would be willing to do anything, in the name of building and protecting the church, to establish and maintain their positions. Just like those who joined associations.

And more to our point, those who tolerated such leaders would be cast on a kline, a bed of suffering, with their leaders, instead of a kline of feasting and social climbing, as they hoped.

Next week we will continue with the last parts of the images linked to the Spirit of Jezebel, namely sexual immorality and Satan’s so-called deep secrets. Then, in the weeks to come, we will look more closely at some of the ways this insidious spirit appears in the church today. Sad to say, I’ve had quite a bit of experience in exactly that kind of church.

Next, part eight: Sexual Immorality Isn’t What You Think

Go to the beginning of the series, The Spirit of Jezebel: Part 1, A Jezebelian Kind of Thing

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

Climbing the Social Ladder

2 thoughts on “Climbing the Social Ladder

  • March 9, 2015 at 2:39 pm
    Permalink

    I think I’m going to have to go read and re-read all your papers again. It’s too much to retain in my mind with only one reading

    Reply
    • March 9, 2015 at 5:05 pm
      Permalink

      Very kind of you to say, Jerry. I can tell you that this material on Thyatira is drawn from a commentary I’m preparing on the book of Revelation. This one chapter took about five months to write, just because there was so much material to sift through. I am very glad that it is helpful.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *